The last time you searched for something on the internet, what service did you use? More than likely you used Google. Why didn't you use Yahoo? Ask Jeeves? Or Go.com? How about any of the 20 other web search engines that existed before Google?
While you're thinking about that, think about the 57 alternatives to Google that were founded since it's inception in 1998, surely since they came later they must have improved on what Google was doing?
Why didn't any of the 20 market pioneers claim the lion's share of market search revenue up to five years before Google existed?
Mark Beeching, one of my partners at BGO, put it this way:
"There are changes happening every day, and great companies harness this change and facilitate this change. Good brands make a change in society: change the way we live, whether in convenience, speed, technology, or by changing our habits, but great brands are able to harness that at the same time. What you really want to be is a late, early adopter."
All throughout history you'll find examples of industries that are dominated by companies that were not the first ones to invent the technology. They were the ones to reinvent it and innovate before everyone else.
The late, early adopters of technology, strategies, or platforms are the ones who learn from the mistakes of the ones that came before, and (like Google) make them better.
But what is a "late, early adopter?"
If we imagine the business world like a battlefield, the "late, early adopters" are the ones waiting in reserve behind the footmen involved in the initial charge. The late, early adopters see what happened before them, and adapt to the changing battlefield and use what resources are available to capitalize on the primary charge.
Here are four companies that are prime examples of "late, early adopters"
Myspace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Bebo, Orkut. The list goes on and on. Before the age of Facebook, anyone could name two or three social media sites they were active on, with very few using the same ones. Today, it's rare to find someone without a Facebook page.
Facebook saw that Myspace was rigid in it's control of an uncontrollable market (the internet) and decided to let the users decide what they should do with the site. Business pages were created, Farmville took off, and your Facebook community began to imitate your real-world circle of friends. Facebook was a living directory, not the digital version of the white pages. It single-handedly forced everyone (Myspace included, the king of its day) to change their product offering completely.
Amazon was not the first e-retailer. It's not the leader in total sales worldwide. But 12 years after its first profitable year it accounts for more than half of all growth of e-commerce globally. They noticed that big retailers (Walmart, Target, Kmart) were only focused on one thing: price. Amazon, on the other hand focused on something different (the customer). By forgoing a profit in the first five years of operation and guaranteeing a comfortable and reliable customer experience, along with competitive prices, Amazon outpaced the stale, deaf, brick-and-mortar competitors.
Amazon was late to the volume retail game, but they were earlier than Walmart to reinvent online as a one-stop-shop, not a shop add-on.
Did you know Nintendo was founded in 1889 as a playing card company? It didn't begin experimenting with early video games until 1974, 85 years later. When Atari was still king. Atari had experience in games, had already sold millions of consoles, but the American videogame market was filled with smut, garbage, and hastily-produced games that didn't work, or weren't fun. Miyamoto at Nintendo decided to make games and treat them like we would films, books, or records. And as a result we got Donkey Kong and Nintendo is now Japan's third-most valuable company. Nintendo did not invent video games, they created the games we play today.
This is the easiest of the bunch. Uber was not the first app in the new sharing economy; it wasn't even the first ride-sharing company. But Uber saw the problems in the taxi industrty, and in the new sharing economy, and attacked them all at the same time.
Inflated taxi fares. Congested roads. Dirty cabs. Late trains. Unfriendly drivers. Low taxi numbers during rush hour. Lack of feedback on the ride. Needing cash for a taxi ride. Splitting taxi fare. You name it, Uber attacked it. Even early ride-sharing didn't allow control of the user of the type, route, price, and time of their ride.
Uber has become a verb in popular culture. This same achievement can be applied to Airbnb, a similar late, early adopter in a different industry.
Remember: it's not about the first ones out with the impressive new technology. (Microsoft had the idea for a personal tablet years before Apple). Forget about the hype, ignore the press releases. Keep your eyes open for the late, early adapter, and you'll be sure to find the company that will outlive, and outperform, the rest.